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Africa: A continent on the move

Giovanni Sale, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, May 25th 2020

It is often said that Africa is “a continent on the move.” Before European colonization there were no real borders on the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, let alone “walls” or containing barriers, as unfortunately we know them everywhere today. There were, instead, empires whose geographical extent and borders varied, as well as acephalous societies, states without an established head or capital.[1] The only truly fixed and determined political reality for the inhabitants was membership of a clan or a specific ethnic group.

This, however, does not mean that Africa is a continent without history, without civilization – as was believed in the 19th century – a vast territory on the fringes of world affairs, with the exception of Egypt and the lands bordering the Mediterranean, which first became Roman, then Byzantine, and finally Islamic. This distorted idea of Africa as a “black hole” in the history of humanity derives from a racist mentality sometimes cloaked in science, which conceives European domination over the rest of the world as the result of the supposed superiority of white civilization over others.

The idea of the “civilizing” mission of the European colonial powers was born in this horizon, justifying colonialism, that is, the indiscriminate occupation of immense territories – which then, after decolonization, became nations – and the legitimacy, on the part of the occupants, of the exploitation of natural resources and populations.[2]

A continent on the move

Contemporary Africa, well defined in its territorial borders by the former colonial powers, has become a continent of migration in the 21st century; millions of people move from one state to another when this is possible, silently and continuously, in search of work or protection. Sometimes these flows are even reversed – as happened between Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea – because of the economic changes taking place within individual states.

Africa has the youngest population in the world.  According to reliable estimates, 60% of its population is under 25 years of age.[3] Africa also has a high number of displaced persons and refugees, due to the numerous inter-tribal wars often forgotten by the media. Migration to other regions (particularly Europe) has increased considerably over the last few decades.

2015 was an exceptional year for migration from the African to the European continent. The flow coincided with that of refugees from the Middle East, in particular from Syria.[4] According to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), about 1,800,000 people entered the EU that year, one million of them crossing the Mediterranean,[5] while a considerable number of refugees (circa 800,000) were received by Germany. Of those migrants, about 200,000 came from Africa.

Apart from Somalis, South Sudanese and Eritreans, who fled from authoritarian regimes or so-called “failed states,” all the others can be considered “economic immigrants,” i.e. people who cross the Mediterranean hoping to find better living conditions for themselves and their families in the northern part of Mare Nostrum.

The number of African migrants during this period has not changed significantly, neither before nor after the refugee crisis. This means that “an exceptional influx – as it was in 2015 – can hide another, more structural one.”[6]

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2007, about 2 million Africans have entered Europe – on average 200,000 each year – and they have joined the migrants already present on our continent, that is, about 9 million. Given these numbers it is difficult today to speak of an African  invasion of the EU.

An important characteristic of recent immigration to Europe is that Spain is now the southern European country with the largest number of immigrants entering by sea, and also by land, through its enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.[7] Spain replaced Italy following the draconian migration measures taken by the former yellow-green Italian government. In the first 9 months of 2019, Spain welcomed more than 23,000 migrants.[8] In absolute terms, however, the preponderance of arrivals of immigrants in the countries of the EU is received by Greece, where about 45,000 migrants arrived in the same period.[9]

At least two conditions must be met for the implementation of a project to migrate.[10] The first is the crossing of a minimum poverty threshold. People who do not have economic means do not usually emigrate. To make the leap and realize the dream, it is necessary to have “an initial treasure,” enough to face the challenge of the journey and to pay the various “ferrymen” or human traffickers. Currently, the expected cost of such an enterprise ranges from 1,500 to 2,000 euros, which is at least double the annual income of an average worker in a sub-Saharan country.

The second condition for the venture to be successful is the presence of diaspora communities in the place of arrival. In fact, relatives or friends who can welcome migrants on the other side of the Mediterranean substantially reduces levels of uncertainty for those contemplating making the journey and the costs of settlement. “The diaspora functions as a decompression chamber to move from the initial loss caused by the new environment to a basic familiarity with another society.”[11]

In fact, the existence of a diaspora community in a European country, well rooted and not yet merged into the social fabric of the host country, is a strong inducement to those contemplating migration.

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the decision to emigrate is often not an individual choice, but also concerns the family, or even the clan to which they belong. According to Marco Zuppi, current director of Canone Rai, the importance of family ties in the dynamics of migration is of particular importance in relation to the financial dimension, which leads people to consider emigration “as a family decision to diversify the portfolio of securities that generate income, in order to cover themselves from the risks of low liquidity and the presence of market failures, through the use of remittances sent by the emigrated family member.”[12]

Some analysts believe that migration from Africa to the “outside” has recently been greatly facilitated by the subsidies offered by richer states to poorer ones. The so-called “co-development theory,” which aims to economically develop these countries and thus reduce both internal (often unwelcome) and external migration, has actually achieved the opposite effect, facilitating the eradication of middle-income people. In this regard, the political scientist Jeremy Harding writes: “Wars, hunger and social decay did not cause mass migrations beyond the natural frontier of the Sahara. But the first rays of prosperity could motivate more Africans to come to Europe.”[13]

Now, although it has elements of truth, this position, in the light of a perspective based on solidarity, is not, at least in absolute terms, ethically sustainable. In reality it states that only those who live in rich countries have the right to move and travel freely, as if the world had no frontiers for them alone.

According to recent studies, immigration in the medium to long term not only contributes to curbing the demographic decline of entire regions, but also creates wealth in the host countries. The Lancet has published a well-documented study showing that every 1% increase in the adult migrant population in a certain geographical area increases the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2%[14], although many – especially in European countries – are convinced that immigrants receive (in welfare contributions and other support) more than they contribute in taxes to the host country.

However, the analysis of the available data shows the opposite. Immigrants actually give back more than they take, and contribute to improving the labor market for others too. They also contribute significantly to global welfare; in 2017 alone, they sent 631 billion dollars to their families back home, which is much more than rich and industrialized countries give in international cooperation to support the poorest countries.[15]

The three stages of the migratory phenomenon

In general, the phenomenon of migration in Africa can be divided into three stages, which follow one after the other and in which we gradually move from internal to external migration, when the conditions mentioned above exist.

The first stage is the so-called “rural exodus”. Millions of young people have recently left the villages where they were born, and have poured into the nearest towns or capital cities in search of work. This passage is considered by many as a form of protest against traditional hierarchies – based on age and clan membership – which are now considered outdated.

Usually these young people do not completely cut their ties with their place of origin. Some of them, especially those who have made a fortune in the city, return periodically and build a new, modern house in the village, thus flaunting their success. On the other hand, the elderly accept this state of affairs, even legitimize it, considering these young people who left as their emissaries, “as ambassadors of their community, instead of dissidents or lost boys.”[16] According to an historian of international relations, Mario Giro, a sort of anthropological revolution has taken place in Africa in recent decades, especially among young people: Instead of the old culture of solidarity (based on “we”), a “competitive and materialistic culture,” based on “me,” is strongly imposing itself, as in other parts of the world. The impulse to emigrate should also be read as a consequence of this transformation, “since all hope in the future of one’s own country has often failed.”[17] Indeed, it is often the adults themselves, repositories of tradition, who push young people to emigrate, to make their fortune “outside.” In short, the new generations “are burdened by the weight and the ‘hurry’ to grasp a few crumbs of the global development that offers new opportunities.”[18]

The second stage of migration takes place beyond the provincial or capital city and leads to the great African metropolises such as Abidjan, Lagos, Nairobi and others.[19] For the first time an international border is crossed, and so all the legal problems of migrant status arise. It should be remembered that it is not easy to move within the African continent. Often residence visas are either slowed down for a long time or simply refused, even by neighboring countries. A poorly conceived pan-Africanism tends to minimize this fact, as if among Africans there were smoother relations and sharing of rights that are reserved only for citizens.

In addition, border surveillance in sub-Saharan Africa is a general problem, both because of the size of the territories and the endemic corruption of people tasked with controlling borders. According to the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, to overcome these fractures it is necessary to decolonize Africa territorially: “There is nothing that historically justifies the fracture of the continent between the North and the South of the Sahara desert. Not only that, on the African continent no one should ever treat an African or any person of African origin as a foreigner. ‘Debalkanizing’ the continent therefore increasingly appears to be one of the conditions necessary to protect the lives of Africans.”[20] Facilitating free movement on the continent could undermine the mirage of a possible freedom outside Africa in the minds of young people.

According to Mbembe, a new line of fracture in the near future will oppose those who will have the unconditional right “to speed and circulation” (with all that follows) to those who cannot benefit from it for racial or simply economic reasons. Those who will manage these processes on a planetary level will be the new masters of the world, because only they will have the power to decide who will be able to circulate freely and who will be condemned to immobility.

In this new order, Africa will have to decide how to reorganize its living space and activate greater mobility within the continent. Europe, in fact, has not only decided to militarize its borders and build new ones, in order to contain “the invasion from Africa,” but is progressively moving its borders beyond the Mediterranean, extending them “to the escape routes and tortuous paths used by Africans who want to migrate. These borders, in reality, move as migratory routes change.”[21]

It should also be remembered that the problem of mobility between states does not only concern Africa, but also more developed continents, such as Europe. The latter has a high population density, excellent communications, large, highly industrialized regions and marked economic inequalities between states. These conditions should favor internal mobility, which, however, in reality, remains very limited, even though it far exceeds migration from outside its borders. While in the USA, for example, 3% of the working population moves for work, in the EU only 0.5%.

In addition to language and identity barriers, recent diatribes in Europe about immigration – between the Schengen Area states themselves – have greatly contributed to reducing the internal movement of people. “The nationalist tension threatens to pose new obstacles to internal movement, creating the need to keep the social and cultural context intact.”[22] The recent emergency due to the spread of the coronavirus has made the situation of mobility between states (not only European ones) more complicated and difficult. If the emergency were to last, it would have disastrous consequences for the circulation of people and goods on a global level, damaging above all the poorest countries.

The biggest problems, according to Mbembe, are neither those of a demographic nature[23] – in fact, compared to other continents, the African continent is the least “crowded” (given its 30 million square kilometers) – nor those concerning migrations outside, since only 29.3 million people of its 1.3 billion inhabitants have left Africa in recent times. The greatest challenge is not, as in colonial times, “to determine borders, limit crossings, force the population to immobility and sedentariness, intensify exchanges at local level. The real challenge will be to regulate circulation and increase mobility within the continent.”[24] This may induce millions of young people not to leave Africa and to use their physical and intellectual energies to support the development of the African continent.

According to some analysts, all African countries, except Nigeria – which in 2050 could become the third most inhabited country in the world, after China and India – are now under-populated.[25] The slave trade, practiced in various ways in past centuries, contributed, until the beginning of the 20th century, to the depopulation of the continent. In any case, compared to European population density, “Africa is virgin land for many sectors of the international economy, in particular the agro-industrial one, with a considerable availability of cultivable land.”[26]

On this matter it is necessary first of all to clear the field of alarmism regarding the out-of-control African “demographic bomb” (according to many scholars of demography, at the end of this century the African continent would have more than 4 billion inhabitants). Moreover, it should be noted that the demographic transition historically reflects – in the absence of exceptional events, such as wars, famine and pandemics – “a long process of adaptation of customs and cultures to the effects of economic and socio-sanitary development (primarily linked to the role and power spaces of women), as demonstrated by the European experience, in which the reduction in the birth rate was not brought about by force, but was the effect of the overall changes in societies.”[27]

According to demographic data, Africa, in the period between 1950 and 1955, was the third region in the world by birthrate, after the Latin America-Caribbean area and Oceania. It later became the first, peaking between 1980 and 1985, with a birth rate of 2.85%. After that period there was a long phase of decline and stabilization  to1.9%, although not uniformly. Nigeria and other countries have growth rates above the continental average, although infant mortality is high.

Africa, excluding the case of Western Sahara, “has long been on the road to contain population growth rates.”[28] This should continue to decrease gradually throughout the century, and yet the global population of the continent in 2050 will exceed two billion people, while the European population will probably not reach half a billion.

The real problem of Africa is not and will not be only demographic), but will concern economic development, generally blocked by a corrupt and quarrelsome political class, often unable to manage the natural resources of the respective countries. Their exploitation is often left to non-African states, such as China, often denying young people a sustainable future. Moreover, the lack of democracy in many countries and the persistence of governments led by the military or long-standing dictators do not bode well for the continent’s immediate future.

Usually, the third and final stage pushes many young people to leave the African continent and face the many obstacles and difficulties of immigration to Europe. This subject has already been covered in several articles and publications in our journal.[29] We can ultimately say that African migration resembles “a fountain with several overflowing basins.”[30] At the beginning there is the rural exodus, which brings many young people from villages to cities, which have become unlivable; then there is the relocation of many of them to the main African megalopolises, where tens of millions of people live, often in conditions of extreme poverty. Finally, with the gradual development of networks of “smugglers,” an increasing number of migrants leave the continent to go to Europe or other parts of the world.

As has been said, the phenomenon of the migration of young Africans to Europe has for years become a structural phenomenon and, despite the repressive measures taken by various European governments in this area, it will continue to be a reality for a long time. We must take note of this phenomenon and use it as a starting point for making choices, such as what kind of migrants to receive, and under what conditions. Two considerations seem necessary in this regard: on the one hand, in the concrete management of this phenomenon, which is no longer a purely national emergency, we must not lose the humanitarian sense, as sometimes unfortunately happens; on the other hand, we must not sacrifice nor be indifferent to the interests of European citizens, who are not yet prepared – for security reasons – to bear the trauma of an alleged “invasion” of foreigners. A certain humanitarian irenism in this delicate matter is as dangerous from a social point of view as nationalist egoism, often with racist undertones. In fact, in recent years, anti-immigration propaganda has been strongly supported by some media and some right-wing political parties under the pretext of defending labor and national identity, but in reality mainly for political and electoral reasons, which in various cases have involved xenophobic, if not even racist, tendencies. This propaganda has had results   that are not negligible.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 05 art. 5, 0520: 10.32009/22072446.0520.5

[1].Sub-Saharan Africa has known boundless empires and very advanced civilizations, especially during the period of Islamic domination, even if they were not determined by fixed and stable borders. The most important were the empire of Ghana (vassal of the Arab dynasty of the Almoravids), which in the 13th century was absorbed by the empire of Mali and, the Songhai empire of Gao, which extended over a vast territory along the course of the Niger River and controlled commercial traffic in the southern Sahara area. These were “well-structured state bodies, solidly dominated by a military elite of which the sovereign was the highest expression.” These polities, moreover, were capable of bringing together under one single control even very large regions, so as to ensure and protect the development of trade and the movement of people. See R. Roveda, “L’Africa è la sua storia” in Limes, No. 12, 2005.
[2]. ibid..

[3].Cf. S. Smith, Fuga in Europa. La giovane Africa verso il vecchio continente, Turin, Einaudi, 2018, 52.

[4].The population of migrants in the 21st century, both in Europe and in other parts of the world, has been growing, because the exoduses generated by new wars, such as the one in Syria, add to the incessant series of conflicts, somehow forgotten by the great powers that generated them in the past, such as those in Afghanistan or Somalia, which have their roots in the events of the Cold War or in the first years of the new “world order” led by the United States. We must not forget, finally, that Afghanistan for about 30 years produced the largest number of refugees, who have scattered to different parts of the world. See A. Morales, Non siamo rifugiati. Viaggio in un mondo di esodi, Turin, Einaudi, 2017, 15.

[5].The Mediterranean, the sea shared by Africans and Europeans, has become, especially on the routes to Lampedusa, a real “marine cemetery”; in fact, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, from October 3, 2013, to January 2019 the number of deaths in the Mediterranean was 18,066. Cf. A. Veronesi – T. Ben Jelloun – M. Serafini, “Il naufragio dell’Occidente” in Corriere della Sera, “La Lettura” March 31, 2019. On the migratory phenomenon, cf. S. Allievi, Immigrazione. Cambiare tutto, Rome – Bari, Laterza, 2019; A. Morales, Non siamo rifugiati…, op. cit.; V. De Cesaris – E. Deodato, Il confine mediterraneo. L’Europa di fronte agli sbarchi dei migranti, Rome, Carocci, 2018; A. Leogrande, La frontiera, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2017.

[6].  S. Smith, Fuga in Europa…, op. cit., 19.

[7].  Cf. U. Ladurner, “La prossima frontiera” in Internazionale, August 24, 2018, 56.

[8].  According to recent statistics (October 2019), 9,648 migrants arrived in Italy in 2019. In 2018 there were 22,031 (and 111,401 in 2017). Cf. F. Caccia, “Il Governo difende il patto con la Libia” in Corriere della Sera, November 2, 2019, 6.

[9].  See

[10].  The so-called “ecological stress” in certain parts of the world is generally regarded as an aggravating circumstance that pushes people into exodus.

[11]. S. Smith, Fuga in Europa…, op.cit., 84.

[12]. D. Frigeri – M. Zuppi (eds), Dall’Africa all’Europa. La sfida politica delle migrazioni, Rome, Donzelli, 2018, 59.

[13].J. Harding, Border Vigils. Keeping Migrants Out of the Rich World, London, Verso Books, 2012, 61.

[14].Cf. G. Remuzzi, “+1% di migranti secondo la rivista ‘Lancet’ equivale a +2% di ricchezza” in Corriere della Sera, “la Lettura” January 13, 2019, 14.

[15].Cf.  ibid.

[16].S. Smith, Fuga in Europa …, op. cit., 94.

[17].M. Giro, Global Africa, la nuova realtà delle migrazioni: il volto di un continente in movimento, Milan, Guerini e Associati, 2019, 45.

[18]. Ibid.

[19].Lagos, Nigeria, with its 23.5 million inhabitants, is the most populous city in Africa. The percentage of young people living in it corresponds to 60% of the total population of the country. Lagos is certainly the youngest city in the world. It is expected that in the next 10 years it will become one of the main megalopolises of the planet. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa (one in five Africans is Nigerian), and Lagos is the commercial center of the state, its cultural center, the model to which everyone aspires and where dreams live and die. “Nigeria is to Africa,” writes a Nigerian writer, “what the United States is to the American continent; it dominates the cultural landscape, arousing a mixture of admiration, envy, affection and distrust. The best of contemporary Nigerian culture is linked to Lagos” (C. Ngozi Adichie, “L’irresistibile Lagos” in Internazionale, August 2, 2019, 14).

[20].A. Mbembe, “La rivoluzione della mobilità”, ibid., February 22, 2019, 46.

[21].Ibid., 46; Id, “Non, les migrants africains ne rêvent pas d’Europe” in Courrier international, No. 1492, June 6, 2019.


[23].Cf. M. Farina, “Africa, crescita della popolazione. ‘Raddoppierà in trent’anni’” in Corriere della Sera, July 14, 2017.

[24].A. Mbembe, “La rivoluzione della mobilità”, op. cit., 46.

[25].According to Zuppi, on the basis of the available data of the United Nations, “in aggregate terms Africa represented 9% of the world population in 1950, then 13.3% (2000), now 16.6% (2017) and will be 25.5% (2050), up to 39.1% in 2100: that is, 4 people out of 10” (D. Frigeri – M. Zuppi [eds], Dall’Africa all’Europa…, op. cit., 35). In 2050, according to the scholar, the continent would exceed 2.5 billion inhabitants. At the end of the century, according to UN statistics, Africa could become the continent most “present in the top-12 [of the most populous nations on the planet]” with the absolute majority of as many as seven countriesincluded: Nigeria (which should exceed one billion inhabitants), Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Egypt, Niger.

[26].M. Giro, Global Africa…, op. cit., 31. Cf. Id., La globalizzazione difficile. Ridisegnare la convivenza al tempo delle emozioni, Milan, Mondadori, 2018.

[27].D. Frigeri – M. Zuppi (eds), Dall’Africa all’Europa…, op. cit., 35.

[28].Ibid., 37.

[29].Cf. G. Sale, “Il fenomeno dei migranti in Europa” in Civ. Catt. 2018 IV 352-365; G. Pani (ed.), Sulle onde delle migrazioni. Dalla paura all’incontro, Milan, Àncora, 2017; Migranti, Rome, La Civiltà Cattolica, 2019.

[30].S. Smith, Fuga in Europa…, op. cit., 109

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